Porky’s Hole Thoughts: Water Well Drilling with the Navajo
In 2002, I was contracted by a religious organization in Virginia to teach cable tool well drilling to the Navajo people in northeastern Arizona. They commissioned me to locate a 22-W Buckeye drill and tools, purchase it and have it shipped to Tonalea, Ariz.
Once it arrived, I traveled to Arizona to find a qualified Navajo person to form, manage and operate the business. I went through four people before I was able to find a qualified person that fit all the requirements. Once I found the right person, we decided on a business name “Tonahalii Drillers.” (I was advised the word tonahalii means “where the rivers come together.”)
The Navajo Nation Council requires that all land on the reservation have an archaeological survey before drilling (or construction) is permitted, which could take up to six months and cost several thousand dollars. For that reason, we set the rig up on an existing site at a church that had been approved and started several years before. I was told that the Navajo ran the rotary drillers off the land when the drillers attempted to fill their water tank from a nearby Navajo windmill. Water is life to the Navajo and their livestock. Water is sacred and extremely scarce.
All drillers know it’s not a good idea to drill in an old hole. However, they needed the well drilled at this location because the process to obtain a new archaeological survey and permit could take six months or more.
Unknown to us, this hole drilled by the angelos (white men) was crooked. Straightening a crooked hole with a cable tool drill is tedious work. We should have started a new hole or filled the existing hole with rocks and re-drilled the hole. We lost the drilling tools in the hole at the mandrel (where the cable attaches to the drilling stem). Note that the formation in much of Arizona consists of Navajo sandstone (very abrasive sandstone) and typical wells will be about 650 to 750 feet deep.
We were able to borrow the proper fishing tools from the Navajo water drilling division in Ft. Defiance, Ariz. During the fishing process, the spudding arm clutch broke. At the time, Tonahalii Drillers didn’t have the finances to rebuild the clutch assembly.
Four years later, they had the clutch assembly repaired. My son, Chris “Piglet” and I returned to install the clutch assembly and continue fishing for the lost tools from the hole. We expected that the tools were probably stuck (after four years on bottom) and impossible to recover. However, in a couple hours, Piglet and his Navajo student had the tools on top of the ground. Expertise and experience always helps!
At this point, the decision was made to abandon this project and move the rig back to Tonahalii’s base.
While Tonahalii Drillers was searching for a new contract, Piglet and I had the opportunity to travel a little. At first, we thought that only the Navajo could travel freely on the reservation. We were staying in Page, Ariz., and when we found that we could travel freely, we drove many of the off-highway dirt roads on the reservation. We visited many of the chapter houses (Navajo community centers) and trading posts in the four corner area (Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico). We also visited Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks and Beaver, Utah (the Cutter home in 1958).
In our travels on the reservation, we found that the Navajo are friendly once they get to know you. However, many are still reluctant to trust the angelos. Piglet was not surprised to hear the name “Porky” on more than one occasion.
After the NGWA Exposition in Las Vegas several years ago, our Navajo friends invited Bess and I to visit. Bess and I drove from Las Vegas to Tonalea and stayed with them in their home. They have a very nice concrete block home. They served us American-style meals. Their daughter took Bess to see the sacred white buffalos near the Grand Canyon. We had a great visit and consider them lifelong friends.
In about 2005, the religious organization in Virginia that purchased the 22-W for Tonahalii Drillers signed over ownership. They continue to drill only on the reservation to this day.